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Skylar Hill-Jackson

Skylar in July 2020

Skylar has worn a lot of hats in her time. She grew up in Vancouver and London England, came back to Canada and worked as a journalist and researcher, was also a yoga teacher, owned a children's wear company, then had a toy and clothing store on College ST and later Bloor ST, owned a pre-and-postnatal fitness company, and travelled all over the world.

When Skylar retired, she got involved in the community gardens at Dufferin Grove.


(done by Jutta Mason, May 24, 2022):
My involvement with public space really started at age 8 when we lived in Vancouver. My mother was trying to make it as an actress and had a day job too, and she was a single mother. She gave me the key to the house and told me look after my younger sister and brother. We basically ran wild around the neighbourhood in Vancouver. We were just all over the neighbourhood -- the golf course, the community centre, the swimming pool. And then when I was 10 we moved to England, and basically ran wild there. We lived in London near Hampstead Heath for a while. When there wasn't school, especially on the weekends, we were scramping apples and finding tadpoles and raising them in our bathtub.

I've always been happiest in woods but have always lived in cities. Joel and I were members of the Bruce Trail Association, but also we had the ravines and biking, and gardening -- until I got so busy with my own babies and my fitness business. I ran that with a partner for 20 years, with ten instructors, and then I bought her out and ran it myself, for another two years.

I started the kids' clothing store in the 1980s when I had a three-year-old and a one-year-old. I wanted the store to have that feeling, that you could meet other mothers there. It was at first a used-clothing-and-toys store. It was a way for mothers to bring their children's clothing when they'd outgrown it, and make some money. And as I made more money from the used clothing, I was able to put that into buying more Canadian children's books, good puzzles, and Brio toy trains. I had a little train station in one of the windows and kids could play in that area while the mothers were shopping.

Most of my fitness classes were indoors, but we heard about "Stroller Fitness" which was going on in Central Park in New York City. We started that here in 1996, in four different parks. I phoned the city to check out about permits. The woman said it would be a hundred dollars an hour. I said, "well, what about the tai chi people?" -- because there was tai chi all over the parks. She said, "what tai chi people?" -- And I said, "oh, okay, thank you very much, good-bye." And that was the end of it, I just ran it. If I phoned up the city and said, "could we have three picnic tables in a particular area of the park, for a mother's group?" -- they would say, "yes, of course."

In Dufferin Grove Park I only ran the stroller fitness for one year, in 2001. I was teaching the class on that Tuesday morning when you were baking and you came over and told us about the twin towers being hit.

I didn't really get more involved with the park until after I retired. We sold the big house on Gladstone and we travelled for three years. When we came back we felt that the housing market was too expensive to get into and we wanted to stay in this neighbourhood, so we rented -- in the apartment building across from the park. I was riding my bike one day in 2010, twelve years ago, and I saw Leslie at the compost. I asked if I could bring my food scraps over there, and she said yes. So I started walking over with my kitchen scraps. She told me that they could use more volunteers for the gardening, and I said, sure. For a while it was just Leslie, as a staff person, and me. Then gradually they built up the volunteers. For a long time I was just showing up, "tell me what to do." I'm a hard worker, and I was regular.

After a while it got confusing. There would be a different staff doing the gardens every year because the staff had to re-apply for their jobs every season. So the new person wouldn't know what to do. That's when I decided to just take over the triangle garden, and grow a lot of different kinds of kale. And after a while I was the person who had been there the longest and knew most of the history.

So then in March 2020, Ford said, everything is shut down. I started writing letters, saying "growing food is essential -- open up the community gardens!"

But then in April 2020, I just walked over to the park and started messing around in there. I already had a key to the garden shed from before. A bit later, Ford changed his mind and allowed community gardens to open, but we still didn't end up being allowed to plant until the end of May. One of the first volunteers to help was just sitting on one of those benches at the garden and when we said we need people to help garden during the pandemic she said yes. Then it grew by word of mouth, and as people were walking by and saw us.

Skylar and friend, April 17, 2020

I don't quite remember how it came about that the city asked me to be the volunteer manager of the gardens. I had been involved in the discussions about the renovation. But then I was a shit disturber, because I made a petition against the rebuilding -- we thought there was nothing wrong with the way it was, it just had to be upgraded.

The first year is when we got the most people in the gardens. They were locked down, and they wanted to be out, and working in nature. That year people were the most desperate to get out. So the city needed somebody to be the coordinator, do the paperwork and tell everybody about the protocols. I said okay, but we'll call ourselves the garden cooperative. Everybody had to sign in (although city staff never looked at any of it afterwards). They gave us a one-time washing station but then we never saw it again after the first year.

Garden Co-op end-of-season picnic 2020

At the end of that first season we asked the rec staff to provide us with an alternate garden site while the original garden was in the construction zone. They said okay. If we hadn't asked I don't think we would have been able to garden for these two years. The parks staff brought out raised planter boxes. They located them near a big Norway Maple, so that half of the planters are mostly in shade. But they set them up in a circle after they asked us what shape we wanted, and they brought over two garden sheds and repaired them. Plus they brought over the compost bin. And they made sure we had good water access.

I was surprised the second year that fewer people showed up to help. I think people learned how to make their lives work around the mandates and the lockdowns, away from public space. But some people came back, and a few new people showed up.

In May 2021 we made preparations by moving some small trees and bushes and lots of plants. We rescued as many as we could and fitted them into the other existing gardens, or around their edges. So for example we planted the rosebushes around the nettle garden.

I felt like we had to continue the legacy of what had been done in the park, and to build on it.

Now I can't wait to see what their plan is for the original gardens that have been inside the construction fence all this time.

Photos of the award celebration May 29, 2022

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